Future of USP vice-chancellor in limbo but Samoa keen to be safe haven

By Soli Wilson of the Samoa Observer

The deported vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific has told the Samoa Observer that his future remains in limbo after he was expelled from Fiji, the 12-nation regional university’s headquarters.

Speaking to the Observer from Nauru, Professor Pal Ahluwalia said the decision about where to serve out his tenure remains out of his hands.

The remarks come the day after Samoa formally extended Professor Ahluwalia the offer of a safe haven.

The professor says he had received offers from both Samoa and Vanuatu to offer him a safe haven, but that the decision about where he ends up will be up to the university.

Professor Ahluwalia has been in Nauru for two months now at the invitation of President of Lionel Aingimea to observe first-hand the challenges that face countries in Micronesia and the South Pacific and see what can be done to improve them.

“I’m waiting for the University Council to decide about where I go next and I know your prime minister and the prime minister of Vanuatu have both said that they would like me to operate from either of those two countries,” said Professor Ahluwalia.

“My view is [I will go] to wherever the council wants me to go.”

Confident over Samoa
The caretaker Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, is confident the vice-chancellor will choose to pick Samoa

Speaking for the first time following the election during his Taimi ma le Palemia programme last Monday, Tuilaepa confirmed Samoa is one of only two countries that have extended an invitation to host Professor Ahluwalia.

“Our branch of the regional university was more focused on agricultural courses, but with the recent change, it is now a general campus,” he said.

University of the South Pacific students in a solidarity rally for Professor Pal Ahluwalia at Suva’s Laucala campus. Image: Atu Rasea/Fiji Times

“This means any course can be taught there and that’s why we offered to host the vice-chancellor; similar to when he lived in Fiji while also directing the university here and in Vanuatu.

“This is why he can also live here during his tenure while he oversees the campuses in Fiji and Vanuatu. Only two nations offered – Vanuatu and Samoa.

“And we do feel that the [vice-chancellor] would prefer to be in Samoa; so we are awaiting a decision as there is also Australia and New Zealand involved. But whatever it may be, I really believe that he will come here.”

Professor Ahluwalia drew the ire of university and national authorities for whistleblowing a raft of misspending and irregular bonuses among the university leadership.

Leaked audit report
Copies of his audit report, and a follow-up report that backed up his findings by forensic accountants BDO Auckland were widely leaked and exposed widespread corruption in the school.

Pal Ahluwalia
Vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia … initiated reforms at USP. Image: FBC News

But when he began investigating the situation, he never imagined it would lead to his overnight expulsion, he said.

“Obviously, I did an audit when I first got to the USP in 2019 and that audit revealed irregularities and financial mismanagement and human resource breaches of policy,” he said.

“I thought the only logical thing for me to do was report it to my council, which I did and of course some members of my management who were incriminated in it don’t share my values or my passion for higher education in the Pacific.

“It’s a clash of values and integrity and ethics. I can only speak about myself, others have to really answer those questions for themselves.”

Professor Ahluwalia was deported from Fiji, the site of the university’s main campus, without warning in February following a late night raid and he was deportated to Australia the following day.

In the meantime, Dr Giulio Masasso Tu’ikolongahau Paunga, is acting vice-chancellor and president.

University clarification
Last week, USP’s chancellor, President Aingimea, clarified that Professor Ahluwalia was still the head of the university despite his abrupt removal from the main campus.

Speaking to The Fiji Times, the regional university chancellor said there was no question that Professor Ahluwalia was still the vice-chancellor.

“That was a question that was put to a subcommittee, the subcommittee has put it back to the council with some recommendations – as far as I am personally concerned, he is still the VC of the USP,” he said.

“As far as I am concerned there are other campuses around the region, USP is a regional institution and, therefore, the VC can, as far as I am concerned, operate out of Samoa, Vanuatu or Nauru or any other country for that matter.”

The Samoan government has been clear on its intentions to have Professor Ahluwalia work from Samoa from the start and speaking to the Samoa Observer soon after his deportation in February, the vice-chancellor said he would be delighted to do so.

The caretaker Prime Minister said such scandals were crucial in shaping the future of the university as well as a lesson for the next host country for the university head.

This article was first published in the Samoa Observer.

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